If you want a real taste of the speed of greens that Tour pros have to tackle, head for Portugal. By the end of my round at Penha Longa near Lisbon, my nerves were just about shot to pieces.
This spectacular former home of the Portuguese Open in a lush, hillside setting just outside Estoril, comes highly recommended, with greens as slick as the tyres on the racing cars which screech round the nearby Formula One circuit.
The speed and smoothness of the putting surfaces on this 1992 Robert Trent Jones design, came as a shock to the system. It needed only the slightest touch with the putter to send balls rolling on and on and often OFF the green. Scary!
The technique, I discovered, after a handful of three putts and a four-stab, was to line the ball up on the toe of the putter to deaden the feel, then watch as the ball trickled towards the hole. Occasionally the ball would drop in, but more often leave a simple tap-in.
It was my first visit to this area of Portugal and I quickly discovered it was totally different to the courses on the Portuguese Algarve – an hour’s flight to the south into Faro.
Though golf can also be found within minutes of the airport, the climate is more temperate and the courses less crowded.
Traffic and the pace of life around Lisbon may be less sedate than the Vilamoura and Quinta do Lago complexes, but there’s so much more to do when the sun goes down as the culture of one of Britain’s oldest allies kicks in and the bustling streets come alive.
As well as historic buildings castles and museums, there are rustic restaurants serving the crisp and delicious local vinho verde and superb fish dishes.
Perhaps appropriately then, that Lisbon is also home Europe’s largest Oceanarium, inhabited by 16,000 fish, mammals, animals and plants representing over 450 different species - many of them swimming together in graceful splendour within the 11-inch thick glass walls of a giant underwater world.
While the importance of family life is Lisbon’s backbone and football – the home of legendary Benfica and Sporting Lisbon and which will host the European Championships in June – is its beating heart, golf is the lifeblood of the country, in attracting tourism.
The quality of life in Lisbon extends to its golf courses in and around the city and to the Estoril and Sintra golf coast.
Indeed, Luis Correira da Silva, Portugal’s minister for tourism and a keen 18-handicapper, says he speaks from personal experience when he reveals that there are 12 pay- and-play courses within 30 minutes of the city centre and presumably government buildings! At one of them, the two year-old municipal course at Belavista, the aircraft roar in overhead before touching down at the international airport.
He told me: "In the next 2-3 years we will be investing nine million euro in promoting golf. It is very important to Portugal, because golf business (greens fees, car rental and accommodation) accounts for 350 million euro every year.
"And with all but 100,000 rounds of the 1.5 million here each year, played by non Portuguese, it is vital we continue to provide top quality courses and hotels throughout the country."
At his shoulder was golfing legend Seve Ballesteros, who currently has several golf projects in Portugal, including a design on an island off Madeira and the organisation of the Portuguese Open at Pennina in March. Rumour is that he may also bring the Seve Trophy to Portugal in 2005.
Penha Longa and its 9-hole sister course Mosteiro are the most northerly of the Estoral & Sintra courses under the lush lea of the cloud-covered Sintra mountains. The 9-hole Estoril Sol course, its parkland neighbour Beloura and the 27-hole Estoril Golf Club complex, designed by Mackenzie Ross in 1945, also provide lavish opportunities to test every part of your game.
Estoril Golf Club, in fact, is owned by the spectacular Palacio Hotel nearby, where I was privileged to stay… within a 3-wood of the golden Estoril beach. Guests get special rates and priorities on a course which is a tactical masterpiece set in fragrant pines and eucalyptus.
For a taste of links-style golf, two courses at the Quinta da Marinha Estate – where the rich and famous of Portuguese society stretch out in their seaside homes overlooking the Atlantic – are worth a visit.
The Quinta da Marinha Hotel course is a combination of heathland and parkland with glorious sea views, while its neighbour Oitavos, has been crafted by American Arthur Hills to fit into the ecologically sensitive landscape.
Lose your ball into the heather and gorse here and don’t bother searching or the environmental police will feel your collar.
A fresh and fickle wind off the sea will make this never the same challenge two days running. It was a terrific test, though in former Hoylake pro Philip A’Court’s suggestion box I mentioned it would be a good idea to sweep the first six greens of dew, especially for us early bird golfers from the UK.
South of Lisbon across the spectacular, 11-mile Vasco da Gama bridge, named after the 15th century explorer, which spans the Tagus River, you’ll find great seaside course at Aroeira and Quinta do Peru, while Troia, set on a green ribbon of a peninsula is well worth travelling the extra miles for.
It was an all-too brief first visit to Lisbon but I got enough of a taste to want to return for a second visit to sample even more courses.
Perhaps I’ll wait until my fellow Englishmen have covered themselves in glory on the soccer fields of Portugal in July and the last hooligan has left the country but in the meantime I’ll practice my putting on shiny bathroom floor tiles, in a bid to save myself from further embarrassment.
Courses visited were:
Estrada da Lagoa Azul · Linhó,2714-511 Sintra.
Tel.: 21 924 9011, Fax: 21 924 9024
Green fees: £58-£79 depending on time of season but these can be drastically reduced (£48-£51) is pre-booked with a reputable golf tour operator.
Casa da Quinta 25, 2750 Cascais – Portugal
Tel.: 21 486 0600, Fax: 21 486 0609
Green fees: from £55 to £108 depending on time of season but these can be drastically reduced (from £36-£68) if you pre-book with a reputable golf tour operator.
Tour operators featuring the Lisbon area include:
If your interested in golf abroad then take a look at our Travel Partners who specialise in golfing breaks to European and Worldwide destinations.